English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

When roads squeaked

Q: I was reading a free 1904 translation of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education on my Kindle, but it was so klutzy that I downloaded Helen Constantine’s 2016 translation. For example, “the road-metal grated” (1904) versus “the macadam squeaked” (2016).

A: Helen Constantine’s translation is very close to le macadam grinçait, the original French wording in L’Éducation Sentimentale. The French verb grincer can mean creak, squeak, grate, and more.

But the anonymous translator of that 1904 version isn’t as far off as you may think. The term “road metal” here refers to the layers of broken stone used in making macadam roads.

When Flaubert published the novel in 1869, a macadam road was made with layers of broken stone, the largest pieces at the bottom and the smallest at the top.

The process, developed by the Scottish engineer John Loudon McAdam, was modified in the early 20th century, to handle automobile traffic, by adding tar to the surface.

Today, “road metal” refers to broken stone and similar material used to make or repair roads or rail beds. The term is in US dictionaries, but it’s much more common in the UK, according to searches of the British National Corpus and the Corpus of Contemporary American English.

So how did “metal,” a word for a material like gold, silver, iron, copper, and brass, come to mean broken stone?

English adopted the noun “metal” in the early 1200s from Anglo-Norman and Old French, but the ultimate source is the classical Latin metallum and Greek métallon (mine, quarry, and substance obtained by mining).

When the noun showed up in early Middle English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it meant “hard, shiny, malleable material of the kind originally represented by gold, silver, copper, etc., esp. as used in the manufacture of objects, artefacts, and utensils.”

The earliest example in the OED is from Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women that probably dates from sometime before 1200:

“Beo neauer se briht or. Metal. gold. seoluer. Irn. stel. þet hit ne schal drahe rust of an oþer þet is irustet.” (“For neither gold, nor silver, nor iron, nor steel, is ever so bright that it will not draw rust from a thing that is rusty, if they lay long together.”)

The use of “metal” for broken stones to make roads showed up first in Scottish English in the late 1700s. The earliest OED example is a 1782 citation from the Scottish National Dictionary: “The mettle for the road is not to be got but at the south end of the road.”

The next Oxford example, from a 1795 book by John Francis Erskine about Scottish agriculture, spells “metal” the usual way: “The weight of stones (or metals, as they are generally termed by the Scotch road-makers).”

However, that early Scottish spelling leads us to the noun “mettle,” which began life as an alternative spelling of “metal.”

As the OED explains, “The form mettle was a variant spelling used in all senses in the 16th and 17th centuries.”

In the early 1500s, writers began using both “mettle” and “metal” figuratively to mean “a person’s character, disposition, or temperament; the ‘stuff’ of which one is made, regarded as an indication of one’s character,” according to the dictionary.

The earliest Oxford example describes the biblical Adam as “Not lyght of metall but heuy and sad” (from Pylgrymage of Man Kynd, William Hendred’s early 16th-century translation of  a 14th-century allegorical poem by Guillaume de Deguileville).

“The first dictionary to record the figurative senses under the spelling mettle separately from metal is Kersey’s New Eng. Dict.(1702),” the OED says. (John Kersey was the author of A New English Dictionary.)

By the mid-1700s, the dictionary adds, “the form mettle becomes very rare in non-figurative senses,” and is used “now chiefly in to show one’s mettle.”

We also discussed the history of “metal” and “mettle” in a 2014 post about a pun in which the two words were switched in the expression “pedal to the metal.”

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